Instagrams: In Loving Memory
Memory is a confounding thing. I’m reminded of that every day as I sit with either my mother or my children. My mother has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember my name and my two teen girls have a kind of adolescent memory loss where they seem to recall only the worst parenting moments of their childhood. If I’m honest, I can’t decide which is worse: being forgotten altogether or being remembered only for infamy.
Recently, while eating soup one evening after a long quiet Sunday at home, my daughter said, “Remember when we were little…”
My heart leapt. My sweet daughter was about to impart a fond memory of her childhood. I went through the possibilities in my head. Would she recount the birthday parties filled with tissue paper flowers? Or the time when we drove to a pumpkin patch and brought home a puppy instead a large orange squash? Or would she say, “Remember when you nursed me from your breast lo so many nights when you had an infection, the stomach flu, or were oh so sleep deprived?” The possibilities danced across my mind as lovely and false as the sirens that beckon the sailors from the sea.
“Mom,” she went on, “remember when you told me to stop clanging my spoon against my cereal bowl because I was driving you crazy and for God’s sake couldn’t you get a moment of peace?”
That, my friends, was a long fall for Saint Mommy, but the tumble wasn’t over, because my other daughter chimed in.
“I remember that. Do you remember when I was standing in front of the refrigerator looking for the catsup and Mom said, ‘For the love of God, Meghan, you’re letting all the cold air out! From now on I want you to visualize dollars with wings flying out of the fridge every time you open the door.’” She went on to say, “How about the time I told you I needed glasses but you didn’t believe me until your own students came and tested my eyes at the health fair and said, “Um, Dr. Garvin, yeah, your daughter can’t see a thing.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but my oldest daughter Julie pretended to pick up the phone and said,
“Hello, 1-800-Child Services.”
Meg, laughing, said, “I still have that one note Mom left when she had to travel for work. It didn’t say, I’ll miss you or keep safe and make good choices. Nope, it said, Girls, when I return, the dog must be alive and not fat.”
I didn’t defend myself I have my own memories of those exhausting times when life was filled with shuttling kids to soccer or ballet or day care while trying to keep fruit in the house. For example the time I was so gripped by the horror and comedy while watching my chubby toddler going head over keister down the porch steps that I couldn’t stop laughing in a kind of hysterical, sleep deprived lack of control. I’m still apologizing, in my head, to my daughter for that one.
Because of all of this, I recently heard myself give parenting advice to a mother who wanted to throw a large birthday party for her four-year-old.
“Don’t,” I said. “She’ll only remember when you drop the cake and the dog eats it. Save yourself the disgrace and just give her a birthday high five.”
If I’m honest, I have the same memories of my own mother. The times she unceremoniously told me to get over myself, or yanked my braid when I was being sassy to my brother.
For some reason these are my go-to memories and are less vivid than, for example, when she spent hours making my prom dress or running French flash cards with me while making dinner for the thousandth time.
Ironically, my mother and I are currently in something I’ve come to think of as a Karmic disremembering. I don’t remember the birthday parties she threw and she doesn’t remember me. If she had an Instagram account it would be purged every five minutes.
Thinking I would solve this memory problem for myself, I gathered all the 8mm videos I had in shoeboxes collecting dust in the closet and had them finally digitized. I wanted to be able to study up on my life.
When the DVDs arrived, my girls and I unwrapped and watched them, enthralled by our past selves. We sat, sometimes speechless, at the rich minutes ticking by, the life being played out as succulent as a juicy peach, surely never to be forgotten, and yet…here we had, forgotten it all.
Just as I started to protest all those memories lost, the camera steadied. My daughters were playing house, my four-year-old Julie pretending to be the mother to Meghan the toddler. Standing at the miniature wooden kitchen filled with plastic food and saucepans, Julie reached for her sister, put her arm around her, and said, “Here, sweetie, do you want something to eat? Sweetie? Sweetie?”
Little Meghan rested her head on her big sister’s arm and gazed up lovingly. Julie then said, “Now it’s your turn to be the mama,” and Meg reached around Julie’s neck and hugged her, then kissed her on her forehead.
There it was, the answer to memory written large on our flat screen television; being a loving mother meant words like “sweetie” to Julie and felt like hugging to Meghan. The gestures and language of love were so deep inside of them that, when asked to role-play, it was not the harsh words or difficult times that oozed from them, but the love.
Here’s what I didn’t tell you yet about my mom. She doesn’t remember me, but she remembers that she loves me.
Here’s my theory. Maybe the reason we can’t remember the good stuff is that it is absorbed into who we are but the bad memories weren’t so they float forever on the top, ready to be trotted out at family reunions and bar-b-ques but never finding true purchase in our life histories. Acts of love change us and plain old memories, good and bad, fade because they aren’t internalized. They aren’t woven into the fabric of who we are.
Remember that woman, the one I advised to forgo the birthday party? I called her the other day and changed my directive. I said throw that party, your daughter will absorb the love and remember the fallen cake and then remind you when she’s older of how the dog ate it and how glad you all were that you received a wet vac for Christmas. The payoff is in the future fabric of your child because she will know exactly how to speak love to her children; it will be inside of her.
If you’d like to watch this performed check here: https://youtu.be/xhDw3sSW90Y